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People sitting in a circle and having a discussion around  a book.
Members of book clubs can impose rules through penalties. Hill Street Studios/Stone via Getty Images

Imposing penalties can deter rule breakers – but the timing needs to be right

Many people participate in small groups like book clubs, community service associations or runners groups. These groups can be wonderful outlets for making friends. To ensure their smooth functioning, however, even informal and fun groups need to set expectations.

For example, members of a book club may become frustrated if one of them consistently shows up late. They may seek to penalize the latecomer by openly sharing their frustration or taking away certain privileges, like her ability to select the next book. This penalty is meant to encourage the latecomer to be punctual and become a more committed group member.

Yet penalizing rule breakers can be a double-edged sword. People might become more engaged and cooperative, but they also might withdraw from the group. How can groups punish rule breakers effectively? The answer, as we find in our new study, has to do with timing.

More cooperation or less?

Group members can respond differently to being penalized. Some studies suggest that people who are penalized for violating shared rules become more prosocial toward the group: They correct their behavior and cooperate more.

However, other research suggests that penalization can have a darker side to it. People often experience anger when they’re punished by their peers, which may lead them to withdraw from group activities and become less cooperative. They might even act to disrupt the group’s functioning.

We wanted to find out whether the response to being punished depended on when the punishment occurred.

Learning from microsavings groups in Colombia

To examine this issue, we used proprietary data from a government-led microsavings program in Colombia carried out between 2016 and 2018. Microsavings groups are voluntary associations that help low-income citizens save money by prompting them to save small amounts at group meetings and temporarily restricting access to those funds. Microsavings groups were perfect for our study for two reasons.

First, members who joined the program met in groups every two weeks for about a year. At the first meeting, members established a set of rules and fines for rule-breaking. Rule-breaking included behaviors like showing up late or answering a phone call during a meeting. There were no changes in the rules and fines over time, allowing us to examine how people responded to the same punishments at different points in time.

Second, at each meeting, members could make one or two types of financial contributions. As they saw fit, they could allocate money to their own private savings fund and some money to the group’s emergency fund. The private fund was dedicated to the member’s personal financial goals. The emergency fund, by contrast, could be accessed by any member faced with a job loss, illness or other personal calamity.

As one participant told us, “When people have difficulties, we give them a hand. … So when someone gets sick or they say ‘Help me out with this!’, well, we help them.” At the end of the program, the emergency fund balance was split evenly across all members.

However, there might not be any funds remaining if members used the fund for emergencies. So when members made contributions to the fund, they supported the group without knowing if they would ever benefit personally from their contributions.

At each meeting, we tracked how much members contributed to their own savings funds, which we perceived as more self-oriented, versus the group emergency fund, which we perceived as more prosocial. On average, members contributed 6,399 pesos (US$1.90) to their private fund and 458 pesos ($0.14) to the emergency fund at each meeting.

It’s all about timing

A businesswoman in an orange shirt sitting at the head of the table during a meeting, with four co-workers seated around her and one standing.
Group members might react in different ways during a disagreement or for being penalized. PixelsEffect/Collections E+ via Getty Images

We discovered that responses to punishment depend on when it occurs over the course of the group’s life. If members were fined for breaking the rules soon after the group formed, they responded less prosocially, allocating less to the emergency fund and more to their own savings. As compared with members who weren’t fined, their allocations were more self-oriented. For example, a member who was fined two weeks after the group formed was predicted to allocate only 1% of her financial contribution to the emergency fund, whereas a member who wasn’t fined was predicted to allocate 15%.

Yet as time went by, members responded to the same punishment by allocating more to the group fund and less to their own accounts. As compared with members who were not penalized, their contributions became more “other-oriented.” After about seven months of group meetings, penalized members were predicted to allocate 25% of their financial contribution to the emergency fund, whereas members who were not penalized allocated 19%.

Why does timing matter? We argue that when groups are newly formed, members do not yet have strong relationships with other members, nor do they appreciate the group’s value. At this stage, they may feel that punishment is simply retribution for their “bad behavior.”

But over time, members come to value being part of the group. They recognize the benefits of membership, some of which they likely did not anticipate before joining. After a few meetings, they may see the same punishment as a useful reminder of why the rules help the group thrive and may, in turn, respond to punishment by contributing to a fund that supports the collective.

Allocating more to the emergency fund may also be a way of reintegrating into the group, showing other members that they remain committed despite their transgression.

Applying insights to small groups

As people start socializing again, there is an opportunity to rethink the conditions under which groups can best function, including situations where members break the rules.

It’s generally not possible or advisable to avoid enforcing rules early in the life of a group. However, groups might speed up the transition to prosocial responses to penalties by working to build strong relationships.

In doing so, individuals are more likely to see the group as valuable and to treat punishment as necessary to maintaining a collective endeavor.

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